The criminal justice system is broken. We have become a nation of mass incarceration and, until we figure out better ways to treat people with problems of addiction and mental illness, we will probably remain so.
I have seen a lot of blame put on reform attempts like Proposition 47 for a rising crime rate. There are multiple thrusts of Prop. 47, and one is that simple drug possession has been changed from a felony to a misdemeanor. The other is that other crimes, like petty theft, have also been changed from a felony to a misdemeanor.
Many have jumped on the increase in crime as being caused by criminal justice reforms like AB 109 and Prop. 47.
As Republican Assemblymember Matt Harper put it, “The only thing that’s really showing a difference in terms of how we approach crime and criminals is this change in our law allowing people to be able to go out on the streets, which previously they would have stayed in prison and not be committing crimes. To play these nonviolent offender games [is] a recipe for disaster.”
On the other hand, Marc Mauer, Executive Director of The Sentencing Project, suggests the link is not nearly as strong as people are claiming. For example, he cites that “New York and New Jersey have reduced their prison populations by 25 percent in the last decade and they’ve seen crime rates decline.”
One problem is that Prop. 47 was supposed to be accompanied by an increase in drug and treatment programs, but even though studies like the Stanford University study show that the state is saving roughly $150 million a year by reducing its prison population, that money has not gone into treatment.
“What California needs to do is invest the savings gain(ed) from reducing the state prison population,” Mr. Mauer said. “That involves probation officers helping people transition. That involves substance abuse and treatment. Some involves job placement — all the things we know that can help to reduce subsequent crime by these people.”
One of the things I learned on Thursday in our discussion on the opioid epidemic is that, for low income people, their only access to drug treatment is through the criminal justice system. Think about that – if someone is addicted to prescription drugs or heroin, if they are wealthy they can enroll in a $40,000 drug program. However, if they are poor, there are virtually no services available.
However, if they are arrested, through the criminal justice system, they can get referred to a drug treatment program that way.
Critics of Prop. 47 are quick to point out that, without the risk of felony charges over them, people will not go through drug court, but the reality is that for many who want treatment, unless they are in the system they cannot get access to the programs either. And that seems to be a larger problem in this epidemic.
However, my objections to the arguments against Prop. 47 are even more fundamental. One of my biggest complaints about the criminal justice system, especially here in Yolo County, is overcharging. We see all the time that people who have committed relatively minor offenses face disproportionate charges, and ultimately time in custody, compared to the crime that they actually committed.
Prior to Prop. 47, people who committed relatively minor crimes would face prison time for those crimes.
In the previous system, we basically took a broad net approach to prosecuting crime. The idea seems to be that by catching people who commit relatively minor crimes and putting them in prison, you stop people from committing more serious crimes later and you also catch more serious criminals who just happened to get caught for drug possession or petty theft rather than crimes of violence.
There is some logic to that approach. You do take a certain percentage of people out of circulation and put them into the criminal justice system.
The downside of the system is that you’re being extremely inefficient with whom you incarcerate. So while it is probably true that you end up catching more serious criminals by casting a wide net on minor crimes, you also end up incarcerating a large number of people who are more of a nuisance than a true threat to society.
You end up with a number of problems as the result of mass incarceration. First, you have the “New Jim Crow” problem where you have put a huge number of people under system control by putting them into felony status. That means they have limited access to social services, housing, jobs, and being enfranchised. Once someone commits a felony, their earning potential goes way down and their recidivism rate goes way up.
It’s one thing when that happens to a serious and violent offender – it’s another thing when that happens to a drug user or someone committing minor crimes to support their habit.
Yes, we do catch more serious felons that way, but the broad net approach does more harm than good.
It is not that those opposing Prop. 47 don’t have a point about freeing up more dangerous criminals, it is rather that the solution to that problem is not to go back to the old failed system. Rather, the solution should be to fix the current system.
The most effective way to fix the current system is to solve the drug epidemic. It was heartening on Thursday to hear Lt. Paul Doroshov of the Davis Police Department essentially argue that we can’t arrest our way out of this problem. We need to throw the resources where they have most bang for the buck, and that is deal with the problem of addiction on the health level.
That means identifying and treating individuals before they get into the criminal justice system. If we had the resources to treat addiction, then we could probably avoid a whole host of the types of property crimes that we see that are on the rise.
The answer is not to throw these people in prison, it is to cure their underlying addiction and help them become productive members of society.
That takes resources and commitment. Unfortunately, the legislature has been slow to provide the resources, and too many prosecutors and law enforcement agencies are spending their efforts undermining Prop. 47 and AB 109 rather than getting to the heart of the problem.
—David M. Greenwald reporting